Introducing Microsoft’s Power Platform
By: Ruairidh Barlow
Microsoft’s Power Platform is an emerging tool set meant to bridge the gap between developers and business users in the workplace. Using what Microsoft is calling a low-code/no-code development platform, individuals with any level of programming experience can develop fully functional and scalable applications to meet their various business needs.
The platform is comprised of five major parts:
- Power Automate
- Power Apps
- Power BI
- Power Virtual Agents
- Power Pages
Below are simple use cases for each part of the platform.
The Power Platform can connect to over 200 kinds of applications or data sources allowing developers to interact with already existing systems or existing data. In the case that there is not a connector for a use case, a custom connector can be created. This example will focus on the Microsoft Outlook email connector. Searching and organizing an email inbox can be overwhelming. With Power Automate, developers can create a flow that will automatically run at a set time of day. This flow will sort emails into different folders in Outlook based on a variety of customizable conditions, such as an email’s subject line, if the recipient is in the to address line or CC address line, if the email is read or unread, email priority, etc. Using an automation to sort an inbox during your offline hours can save employees a lot of time, making it easier for end users to see which emails have not been read and which ones need action now.
The next part of the Power Platform is called Power Apps. It is a toolset that focuses primarily on the development of user interfaces. It is comprised of Canvas Apps, which are highly customizable web based or mobile applications, and Model Driven Apps, which are simple interfaces that use Microsoft’s Dataverse as the data source. This example will focus on the use of a Canvas App. A Canvas App can be used to design a completely custom feedback form that can store data in a variety of data sources, such as SharePoint. Forms can have any number of customizable fields, pages, and menus. Setting restrictions on fields allows for the collection of easy to analyze standardized data. Fields can be set to be required, to only able to accept a specific data type (date or future date, words, select a choice), and be visible or hidden based on conditions. Developers can choose from customizable pre-made templates that best suit their interest to get started.
The next portion of the platform is Power BI, a data analytics and visualization tool. Power BI can use data from a variety of sources, process it, and visualize it with several different kinds of graphics. Developers can create reports comprised of graphics that represent different aspects and insights of the underlying dataset, and use various types of data slicers and filters, which allow end users to sort an filter through data without having to modify the underlying data source. With proper licensing, developers can share these reports with other users using the Power BI service. Using the Power BI service allows for automatically updating the underlying datasource at a set interval so that graphics are always reporting accurate and updated data. Power BI graphics can be embedded in Power Apps’ forms and Power Pages’ webpages.
For this example, Power BI can be used to graph the different type of responses collected by the user feedback form mentioned in the previous Power Apps example. Power BI can use the SharePoint list that the Canvas App uses to store feedback information and graph it in a report. Developers can plot different portions of the dataset with a variety of graphs, such as a bar graph and pie chart. Users can then filter the dataset to feedback collected during a certain time and see how, for example, a new build of a product impacts user feedback.
Power Virtual Agents
Power Virtual Agents allows developers to create chatbots that can interact with internal employees or external potential clients. For this example, a chatbot developed in Power Virtual Agents can be used to answer frequently asked questions from employees, such as: what my benefits are, what are our holidays, etc. Allowing chatbots to answer frequently asked questions can save time for employees. If an end user is not happy with a chatbot’s answer, the chatbot can direct the user to someone who can be of more help. Conversation history with the chatbot is saved, allowing developers to analyze the types of questions being frequently asked and ones that are not being answered well by the chatbot, which can be used to update the pool of answers available to the chatbot.
Power Pages allows for the development of secure external facing webpages or internal facing /employee-use only webpages. Developers can use an array of templates to jump start their webpage design. Power Pages allows developers to set specific privileges for different user groups, which controls what groups can do and can see on a webpage. Power Pages seamlessly works across devices and different internet browsers.
Tying it all Together
Power Pages can be used as a platform to bring all aspects of the Power Platform into on place. Take for example a company’s employee home page. On this website, employees can quickly get concise answers to their frequently asked questions by using a chatbot created with Power Virtual Agents. If an employee wants to escalate their question, an automation can be triggered that will notify an identified person to reach out to that employee to better assist them. They can leave feedback through an embedded Power Apps form for a new timesheet management software, and their feedback can be viewed and refreshed daily in an integrated Power BI graphic. If feedback is especially low, an automation can be kicked off to prompt someone to reach out and follow up to see what can be improved.
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